How Oakland became the spiritual capital of Occupy Wall Street

The New York Times Magazine

The Anti-Capitalist Brigade started gathering early on May Day at Oakland’s Snow Park. There was free coffee, oatmeal, doughnuts, fliers with the day’s agenda and plenty of pot. A “street medic”—“I just finished a wilderness first-aid course,” he told me when I asked about his training — tended to his first case of the day, a man in his 20s whose leg had been beaten to a purple hue with a metal rod in an overnight fight in the park. Nearby, an organizer reminded protesters to take down the toll-free number for the National Lawyers Guild: “This is important. Do not put it in your cellphones, because if you get arrested, the cops will take those away. Write it on your bodies. In indelible ink. There are Sharpies on the table.”

No central action was planned. A coalition of labor unions had asked Occupy Oakland, with its proven ability to turn out large numbers of militant activists, to blockade the Golden Gate Bridge, but then withdrew the request at the last minute. Instead, thousands of Occupy protesters met at various “strike stations” and fanned out into the streets with shields and gas masks (or the homemade alternative: bandannas soaked in vinegar), transforming downtown Oakland into a roving carnival of keyed-up militants of every shape and size: graduate students, tenured professors, professional revolutionaries, members of the Black Bloc, dressed like ninjas, their faces obscured.

Joints were passed, but this was not a mellow crowd. A barefoot man known as Running Wolf grabbed an American flag from outside a popular cop bar and dragged it behind him. Packs of protesters charged into businesses, overturning tables, shattering windows and smashing A.T.M.’s. An activist spray-painted vulgarities on the window of a Bank of America branch.

The Menace was loose again, as Hunter S. Thompson wrote about a different group of rabble-rousers, the Hell’s Angels. This riot had a soundtrack, too, a cacophony of chants—“Strike! Take Over!” and “Take Back Oakland! Kick Out the Yuppies!”—overlaid with beating snare drums and the rhythmic thump-thumping of the police and news helicopters hovering overhead.

Many businesses were closed, less in solidarity with May Day than out of fear of reprisal from protesters. The rumored targets weren’t just the big corporations, but smaller shops that were the quarry of the so-called antigentrification brigade. In an Occupy Oakland twist on the “Soul Brother” signs that shopkeepers used during the race riots of the 1960s, Awaken, an upscale cafe and art gallery, had plastered its windows with signs reading:

“We are Oakland. We are the 99%.” As the swarm made its way down Broadway, shouting, pounding on windows and throwing bottles at stores, two Asian immigrants hastily boarded up their small, sad-looking beauty-supply store. When I tried to talk to one of them, he shooed me away —“Too busy”— and reached for another board.

A few blocks away, I spotted Phil Tagami, a real estate developer who has taken to standing guard in the lobby of his downtown office building with a shotgun during protests. Dressed in black fatigue pants and combat boots, he was scuffling with a group of activists who were trying to force their way into another upscale cafe called Rudy’s Can’t Fail.

Clusters of cops in riot gear stood impassively outside a few strategic locations. Others jogged around the city in formation. At one point, a few officers knocked a protester in a black hoodie off her bicycle, pushed her facedown on the ground and roughly zip-tied her hands. An angry crowd quickly converged, chanting, ‘‘Pigs go home!’’ Then there was a pop — the firing of a tear-gas canister — and a cloud of chemical smoke quickly swept across the block, temporarily dispersing the protesters.

As the activists collected at the intersection outside City Hall, Scott Olsen, a 25-year-old Iraq war veteran who was shot at close range in the head last fall with a beanbag round by the Oakland Police, rolled a cigarette and calmly observed the chaos through glazed blue eyes, his long, stringy blond hair protruding from beneath a protective helmet. He looked less like an ex-Marine than a stoned, skinny teenager who had gotten lost on his way to the skate park. I asked him what brought him out. ‘‘I can’t stay home on a day like this,’’ he said.

LAST SPRING, as the Occupy movement struggled, vainly, to recapture its lost energy in New York and elsewhere, in Oakland it remained vital. Occupy Oakland was the show that wouldn’t close, complete with its own cast of celebrities, including Olsen, the movement’s Ron Kovic; Tagami, the city’s Charles Bronson; its mayor, an ex-radical herself; her countless critics; and Oakland’s infamous police department — O.P.D.

In a sense, Oakland is the last place you would expect to find the most stubbornly active outpost of the Occupy movement. It’s a city almost entirely devoid of financial or corporate institutions, a city that “capital” fled decades ago. The shimmering skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco, packed with Pacific Heights investment bankers and venture capitalists, are all of 12 minutes away. Silicon Valley, bursting at the seams with dot-com millionaires, isn’t much farther. Why not take the fight there, to a more plausible surrogate for Wall Street?

Maybe because Occupy Oakland, whether its leaders have articulated it or not, isn’t a protest against what Oakland is, but rather what it’s in danger of becoming. Oakland may be broke, but all of the wealth being generated in its immediate vicinity needs someplace to go, and some of that wealth is already beginning to find its way to Oakland, to a place that has long been the catch basin of America’s radical energies and personalities.

Why are radicals so inexorably drawn to Oakland? The cheap rents don’t hurt (free, if you’re willing to squat in an abandoned house or industrial space, and hundreds apparently are). Oakland is urban, dangerous and poor—fertile social conditions for inciting revolution. What’s more, it has a long, easily romanticized history of militancy. America’s last citywide strike, in 1946, took place there; the Black Panthers were born in Oakland; and David Hilliard, a former Black Panthers chief of staff, still gives three-hour tours of the movement’s local landmarks and sells his own line of Black Panthers hot sauce: “Burn Baby Burn.”

Running parallel to this history of political militancy is a history of lawlessness. In the early 1970s, when the Hell’s Angels were scandalizing America, their most infamous clubhouse was located in East Oakland. The Oakland native Felix Mitchell was one of the first to scale up corner drug dealing into a multimillion-dollar, gang-controlled business. On his death—he was stabbed in Leavenworth in 1986 —the city gave him a hero’s send-off: thousands came out to see his coffin borne through his old East Oakland neighborhood by a horse-drawn carriage trailed by more than a dozen Rolls Royces and limousines.

In Oakland, the revolutionary pilot light is always on. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Oakland writer and social activist Jack London said this to a group of wealthy New Yorkers: “A million years ago, the cave man, without tools, with small brain, and with nothing but the strength of his body, managed to feed his wife and children, so that through him the race survived. You on the other hand, armed with all the modern means of production, multiplying the productive capacity of the cave man a million times—you are incompetents and muddlers, you are unable to secure to millions even the paltry amount of bread that would sustain their physical life. You have mismanaged the world, and it shall be taken from you.”

It’s a dream that still exists in Oakland — that the world can be taken from the haves and delivered to the have-nots. Like all dreams that are on the brink of being extinguished, its keepers cling to it with a fierceness that is both moving and an extreme exercise in the denial of the reality that is at their door.

Read the rest of ”The World Capital of Anti-Capitalism” at The New York Times Magazine.

Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of “The Challenge” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning.”